Warning: this article contains spoilers for The Salisbury Poisonings.
Updated on 16 June 2020: From Netflix’s Tiger King to ITV’s Quiz, the UK’s coronavirus lockdown has been dominated by must-watch TV moments. And BBC One’s The Salisbury Poisonings is the latest show to dominate our social media feeds, captivating viewers across the country with its quietly powerful retelling of the same real-life Salisbury poisoning incident that shocked the UK in 2018.
New scenes from the show, however, have prompted the real-life Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who is portrayed by Rafe Spall, to speak out in defence of his wife.
The three-part BBC drama depicts the detective and his family’s life after he was poisoned by the Novichok nerve agent that gripped the town in 2018. However, after the TV show’s second episode – which depicted Sarah Bailey (Annabel Scholey) dealing with the fallout of Nick’s hospitalisation – prompted many to pile criticism upon her via social media.
“I’ve seen quite a bit of negativity towards my wife regarding episode two and the way she handled it,” tweeted DS Bailey.
“Those scenes with Sarah could never truly reflect the extreme emotion and trauma she went through that day. Cut her some slack and be kind.”
Sarah Bailey, meanwhile, tweeted: “I’d like to point out I changed the bed (twice), bleached everywhere, I was never told I couldn’t touch Nick and he’s never made tea by putting the milk in first!”
Her final point, of course, refers back to a fleeting scene from the first episode of The Salisbury Poisonings, which depicted DS Bailey pouring milk into his teacup before adding hot water. Despite the show’s serious subject matter, many viewers latched onto this tiny detail, insisting that it was “disgusting.”
As reported on 14 June 2020: The first episode of The Salisbury Poisonings, which aired at 9pm on 14 June, opened simply enough: an older man and a woman are sat, pale and trembling, on a bench in the middle of the Wiltshire city. Their predicament soon draws a crowd of concerned onlookers, who do their best to rouse the duo. Unable to do so, they call for an ambulance. As the year is 2018, some even whip out their phones to film a few sneaky shots of emergency services arriving at the scene. Almost everyone, though, assumes the pair have brought their predicament down upon themselves.
“Probably an overdose,” someone in the crowd mutters.
The local police, though – who arrive hot on the heels of paramedics – aren’t so sure. Something about the scene, they say, just doesn’t add up. And they’re right to be suspicious, of course: the now-vomiting and unresponsive patients are none other than ex-Russian military official Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
And, as everyone watching at home knows already, they have been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok.
The BBC show doesn’t lean into melodrama. Instead, it focuses its lens on the ordinary people who find themselves caught up in this utterly extraordinary situation.
As co-creator Declan Lawn tells Digital Spy: “We were just more drawn to the stories of the people who had to clean up this mess rather than the people who made it. All of the action takes place in the shadow of a spy drama, spooks and secret agents, but it’s not about that, it’s about ordinary people who have to pick up the pieces, the people who have to clean up Salisbury and also the people who are directly affected by the attack.
“[Co-creator] Adam [Patterson] and I felt that once we started hearing those stories, that is where the drama was, that’s where the emotion was and we were just instantly drawn to it. So we didn’t want to do the obvious thing, which probably would have been an espionage drama.”
It’s a decision that’s paid off: the first episode serves up riveting drama, as we – all of us now seasoned veterans in social distancing – watch in horror as paramedics, police, ordinary people repeatedly handle Skripal and his daughter in a bid to help them. As officers clear up vomit without donning a face mask first. As DS Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) leads a team of investigators through the Skripals’ home, wearing the best forensics gear they could find at short-notice on a Sunday.
As the aforementioned Bailey slowly succumbs to the effects of the poison himself, growing increasingly weak and dizzy as his pupils dilate to pinpoints. As he makes his wife a tea, brings it to her in bed, hugs his children. As he slowly contaminates his house, unknowingly passing this thing around, in a way which could prove fatal to those he loves most.
“Wash your hands,” viewers begged anxiously via their social media feeds. “WASH YOUR HANDS!”
In focusing on the ordinary people fighting to contain the situation behind-the-scenes, The Salisbury Poisonings does what no news report ever could at the time: it helps viewers at home finally comprehend the scale and seriousness of the situation.
And, judging by reactions on Twitter, it’s not just this reviewer who’s fallen hook, line and sinker for the compelling drama.
“Absolutely brilliant TV,” tweeted one. “A must-watch.”
“Hooked already,” said another. “You don’t realise how scary things are behind-the-scenes.”
“Frightening,” added one more. “Things like that only happen in the movies. Incredibly there were so few caught in the crossfire so to speak. Phenomenal work by those involved to clear it up. Another great drama from the BBC.”
Others praised individual cast members, with one branding Spall “fantastic,” and another hailing Anne-Marie Duff (who plays Tracy Daszkiewicz) as “an excellent actress who literally inhabits any role she plays”.
Among the many, many, many positive responses to the show, though, were those who decided to focus their attention on…
Well, on a cup of tea. Obviously.
That’s right: Bailey makes himself a cuppa early on in the episode, and pretty much everyone watching at home clocked the fact that he made a fatal error while doing so.
You guessed it: he put the milk in first.
“There’s definitely something wrong if he puts the milk in before the hot water,” noted one.
“Wait… did you put the milk in first?” asked another. “I think we should take you to the hospital. NOW!”
And another, leaning into the joke hard, tweeted: “Putting the milk in first is a worse crime than trying to assassinate someone. Fact.”
Sure, it’s a little detail that’s blown up on Twitter – but it’s the same sort of little detail which makes The Salisbury Poisonings all the more effective in its retelling. In building up all the complex layers that make up a person, Bailey becomes so much more than a name we’ve read in the papers: he’s a hard-working officer, with a family who adores him, and a penchant for poorly-made cups of tea. He’s someone we’re rooting for, hoping for, praying for.
He’s a person, just like any one of us, who’s found himself caught up in something far bigger than he knows.
Of course, there are those who have said that airing The Salisbury Poisonings now, in the middle of the coronavirus lockdown, feels a little too close to the bone. Because, while Novichok is a manmade bioweapon, it feels frighteningly similar to the biological Covid-19. Both are invisible threats. Both are spread quickly, through close contact. Both are best handled through tracking, tracing, and containment strategies.
However, while a drama about a deadly nerve agent may feel like the last thing we need in these strange times, The Salisbury Poisonings has proven itself to be more relevant and watchable than ever.
Indeed, as director Saul Dibb tells The Guardian: “With Covid there are thousands and thousands of deaths. We’re talking here about one death. I think it shows through looking at one individual’s death how significant all of those individual stories are. They often get glossed over.
“For us it’s the chance to say this is one person, this is what all of those 40,000 people have experienced now.”
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.
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